PAHO urges Caribbean to prevent outbreaks of polio in COVID-19 pandemic

The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) says countries in the Americas, including the Caribbean, must maintain polio vaccination and epidemiological surveillance during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in order to prevent outbreaks.

In a message to mark World Polio Day on Saturday, PAHO said that while the Americas was the first region to be declared polio-free more than 25 years ago, that achievement needs can only be protected with continued vaccination and strong surveillance.

“Although as a region we have defeated polio once before, if we allow vaccination coverage rates to fall and become too low, we will be at risk for polio circulation in our communities once again,” said PAHO Director Dr Carissa F Etienne.

“That is why it is more important than ever to do our part to protect and sustain polio elimination in our region while we wait for countries in other parts of the world to achieve this goal,” the Dominican-born official said.

Regional polio vaccination coverage rates for the Americas have been below the recommended 95 per cent over the past few years. Reported coverage for the third dose of the oral polio vaccine (OPV3) for the Americas between 2016 and 2019 ranged between 85-87 per cent. Coverage in 2020 might be lower in many countries due to disruptions in primary health care activities caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now during the pandemic, we must work extra hard to not lose what we have gained,” said the head of PAHO´s Immunization Programme, Cuauhtemoc Ruiz Matus.

He noted that important factors in the success of the region’s fight against polio included strong political commitment from governments; engaged, committed communities; strategic partnerships and support between international agencies, Rotary International, and governments; and tireless health care workers who made it their goal to reach and protect every child with polio immunisation.

“Without all of these things, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” said Ruiz.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stressed essential health services, including immunisation services and epidemiological surveillance systems designed to catch vaccine-preventable diseases quickly and allow for a rapid response before outbreaks grow, as health care workers around the region have been focusing on pandemic response.

PAHO said that the Region of the Americas reported its last case of poliomyelitis caused by wild poliovirus in 1991, and in 1994 was the first region to receive the certification of having eliminated the virus.

It said lessons learned from the Americas on epidemiological surveillance and initiatives aimed at the sustainability of immunisation programmes through PAHO’s Revolving Fund for Vaccine Procurement have been shared with immunisation programmes globally, and now five of the six World Health Organisation (WHO) regions have been certified as free of wild polio.

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